Wondering About Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage

Fiddler at Arena Stage, 2014
Fiddler at Arena Stage, 2014

The 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof has been celebrated amply this past year, including with a Princeton symposium Stacy Wolf (FS2) and I organized last fall.  Alisa Solomon’s marvelous book, Wonder of Wonders:  A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, beautifully chronicles the musical’s origins and its evolution into a cultural touchstone for American Jews, one that often replaces or stands in for religious knowledge and practice.

I anticipated Molly Smith’s production of Fiddler at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where she is the long-standing artistic director, because she’s done very well directing other classic Golden Age musicals.  Her production of Oklahoma! during Arena’s 2011-12 season was gorgeously re-imagined, with a multiracial cast that added thrilling new dimensions to the story about farmers and cowmen on the American prairie.  Using the challenging theatre-in-the-round architecture that gives Arena its name, Smith managed to bring vital new life and resonance to the show.

Smith's Oklahoma at Arena
Smith’s Oklahoma at Arena

Likewise, her production of My Fair Lady at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2011 made that show much more than an old chestnut.  She instilled in the musical a vivid sense of ironic humor, brisk pacing, and characters with a lot of feminist verve, making it, like her Oklahoma!, come alive with new meanings and colors, as well as a whole lot of pleasure.  That production, too, was cast with people of color in major and subsidiary roles, making the show look relevant and contemporary.


Smith's MY FAIR LADY at the Shaw Festival
Smith’s MY FAIR LADY at the Shaw Festival

Smith says in her program note for Fiddler, “Many of you know I often cast in a cross-cultural way because I believe this is the world we live in.”  What a shock, then, to see her production of this musical performed by only white actors.  She says that for Fiddler, “I was very interested in casting in a culturally specific way—through the Jewish and Russian point of view.  In this way we go from the individual to the universal.”

What a fascinating idea!  But, with respect, I’ll say I was hard pressed to find the “culturally specific casting” in the production, since very few of the actors seemed to be Jewish.  Okay, I know:  how can we tell?  And isn’t it essentialist to assume from a name or an actor’s photo in a program, or even from their appearance on stage, who’s Jewish?  Especially if “Jewishness” is more about culture and religion than it is about race?  (Although this is an on-going debate and point of discussion in Jewish studies.)  Or by “culturally specific,” did Smith mean Eastern European in origin?

I ask these questions as a Jewish woman whose name is “Dolan,” after all.  My grandfather’s family name was Dolinsky.  He was born in Poland, but when his family immigrated to the States and he was later drafted to serve in the First World War, the Army changed his name to Dolan.  My father tells me that my Zedie Jake was fond of his new name.  He enjoyed having an Irish name because he thought it made him sound more American (since, of course, the Irish became white before the Jews).

For me, the misrecognition of my name as Irish has meant a lifetime of trying to convey my Jewishness through identity performance.  I use my hands a lot, I raise my eyebrows, and I inflect my sentences in such a way that I hope will read as Jewish to my interlocutors. Being recognized as Jewish always seemed to me better than passing as gentile.  I was afraid of what people might say in front of me, if they assumed I wasn’t Jewish.  I was afraid that what I might hear would make me feel a traitor to my race or might scar my own sense of self.  Nonetheless, all that hand-waving wasn’t enough to keep me from overhearing anti-Semitic jokes when I was in high school theatre classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse because my fellow actors thought there were no Jews present.  And despite the hand-waving, I still have to come out as Jewish whenever it seems important and necessary, or when I feel people dancing around that part of my identity, wondering.

Jonathan Haraday as Tevye
Jonathan Hadary as Tevye

So what does it mean for Smith to cast her Fiddler as “culturally specific,” with actors named Jonathan Hadary (Tevye), Ann Arvia (Golde), Dorea Schmidt (Tzeitel–could be Jewish?), Hannah Corneau (Hodel), Maria Rizzo (Chava), Shayna Blass (Shprintze—most likely Jewish!), and Maya Brettell (Bielke—maybe Jewish?)?  Any of them could be Jewish, for all I know.  But when Yente is played by Valerie Leonard, the cast member who most seemed to miss the musicality of the (contrived) Eastern European lilt Joseph Stein (book) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) wrote for their characters, what does this signal about cultural specificity?  Leonard could be Jewish and simply tone-deaf to the character’s Yiddishisms.  If the actor can’t play Jewish and/or is not “really” Jewish, why not have her played by an African American actor adept enough at acting to perform the authenticity required to make this musical succeed and make sense?  Because black skin isn’t culturally specific to the Russian shtetl?  But swarthy Italian complexions and curly black Italian hair can better “pass” as Jewish?

I really do mean to wonder (no pun intended) and not entirely to criticize.  I note that Jenna Weissman Joselit, a Jewish Studies scholar who runs the program at George Washington University and spoke (beautifully) at our Fiddler symposium at Princeton, receives special thanks in the program.  And Dr. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern (who is, I find via Google, a professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University and recently published a book called The Golden Age Shtetl) is also thanked.  Ariel Warmflash, an Arena Theatre teaching artist whose blog post on the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College web site leads me to believe she’s Jewish, is listed in the credits as a “cultural consultant.”  Perhaps she helped dialect and vocal coach Lynn Watson with the rolling r’s and intonations of the Russian accents the cast affects with greater or lesser success.  But does accent signal cultural specificity, especially when the songs that compose Fiddler’s soul aren’t written that way?

Does being Jewish even give you a special cultural purchase on the musical, when Solomon’s book and Harnick’s quote in Arena’s program insist that the point of the musical was to show that “Jews are just like everybody else”?  (See also Robert Brustein’s New Republic discussion of the show and Solomon’s book.)  Given Smith’s directing history and Arena’s location in a predominantly African American city, foregoing multiracial casting to be “true” to what seems to me a misbegotten sense of cultural authenticity represents a theatrical and political misstep.

Tevye and his cart
Tevye and his cart

But what does the production bring us in any case?  All the pleasure of Fiddler remains intact, from the pedagogical and rousing beauty of the opening song, “Tradition,” to the mournful resignation of “Anatevka,” when the shtetl-dwellers round up their belongings and leave their humble homes before the pogrom burns them down.  Hadary, a man slight of build and fairly short for a role typically cast with a rounder, more physically imposing type, underplays Tevye.  He’s casual with the glorious “If I were a Rich Man,” refusing to embody Zero Mostel’s iconic hands-above-his-head hip-shaking da-da-dee’s and deedle-dums, which makes the number feel tossed off instead of heart-felt.  He speaks in a Brooklyn accent, underlining perhaps, as Solomon argues in her book, that the musical was meant for those who had already assimilated to America and for whom it provided a nostalgic rereading of the shtetl from which many of the musical’s Jewish audiences’ ancestors might have come.

But Hadary’s New York-isms and his rather fey interpretation of Tevye aren’t fleshed out enough to be refreshing or original. Because he’s determined not to imitate Mostel (or Topol, the Israeli actor who played the role in Norman Jewison’s popular film adaptation), he throws away many of the character’s best lines and performs the patriarch as though he’s already cowed by his daughters’ impossible marriage requests.  If Tevye has no fire or fight, his debates with his daughters and with his god seem beside the point, pleading little performances whose endings are already known.

And of course, they are.  Most of the audience at Arena during the matinee I saw knew how Fiddler ends, except for perhaps a few of the children.  After all, it’s a classic.  The suspense isn’t in what happens; it’s in how the actors and director and designers get there.  Hadary missed opportunities to surprise us with his interpretation, and because of his size, Tevye often seemed the least, instead of the most, important person on stage.

Golde (Arvia) and Yente (Leonard)
Golde (Arvia) and Yente (Leonard)

Sometimes, that worked to the production’s benefit.  “Do You Love Me?,” the love song between Tevye and the dubious Golde, was sweetly understated.  Arvia’s Golde was the larger of the couple in Smith’s production.  Her ample heft softened Golde’s edges and she played the archetypal Jewish wife without the fatigued sarcasm many interpreters bring to the role.  Their duet allowed Tevye to truly wonder if his wife loves him, and let Golde acquiesce to what felt like the warm surprise of admitting it, after 25 years.

“Sabbath Prayer,” too, felt more familial than magisterial, as Tevye and Golde stood on opposite sides of their simple wooden table to offer their benediction, with their daughters and Perchik, the Kiev revolutionary, gathered around.  The set design and Smith’s use of the stage lent themselves to this more intimate, domestically focused interpretation, as scenes were decorated with few props and several benches that were moved easily around.  Red apples in a basket or clutched in a character’s hand supplied some color and texture against the muted tones of Paul Tazewell’s ragged shtetl costumes.  In “Sabbath Prayer” and in the wedding scene, actors carried candles that also warmed the space and provided flickering adornments to lighting designer Colin K. Bills’s sharply crafted spaces.  Smith amplified the sense of community by placing actors with lit candles above the audience around the back of the theatre, too.

“Anatevka” benefited from a similar warm under-playing, as Tevye and his neighbors slouched on the wooden floor boards and benches that comprised set designer Todd Rosenthal’s stage, underlining the resigned but somehow stalwart determination that the song implies. Lacking the revolve that typically moves Tevye and his family and their cart away from their home, Smith directed the cast to walk in an ever-expanding circle around the low ramps that encircled the stage, finally leaving the shtetl by stepping off the platform into the aisles of the audience and disappearing through the auditorium.  It’s a nice touch, representing the Jews of Anatevka dispersing around the globe.

The daughters
The daughters

But aside from the perhaps purposefully diminished Tevye and Smith’s attempt to render cultural specificity, this production doesn’t add anything very new to the canon of 50 years of Fiddler.  It all works; the daughters are especially good in “Matchmaker” and in their individual numbers, begging their father to let them marry whom they wish (and singing beautifully).  The women and girls who play them convey their affection for one another, and for their ambivalent father and warm mother, very well.  But they don’t add new notes to their characters, nor do they offer much in the way of the performance of Jewishness.

That said, I was struck in this production by how pedagogical the musical is, and by how much of it performs Jewish rituals.  Perhaps this is what Smith meant by cultural specificity, though I still don’t find those ethnic particularities in the performances so much as in how the scenes are constructed by Stein, Block, and Harnick and directed by Smith.  “Tradition” is such a good way to instruct the audience about ritual garments like tallit (prayer shawls), and in what it basically means to study Torah, and in the strict gender division of Orthodox Jewish life (although Anatevka’s residents always look more Orthodox than they really are, since the creative team was writing for assimilated, secular Jews).

The bottle dance
The Bottle Dance

The wedding scene, too, is pedagogical, as Tzeitel and Motel are lifted on chairs, the stage bisected by stanchions that keep the men from the women until Perchik insists on challenging tradition and dancing with Hodel.  The Bottle Dance, which Solomon explicates brilliantly in her book, is a tradition the original choreographer Jerome Robbins invented, through his ethnographic observation of Jewish weddings in preparation for the show.  Though fabricated, the muscular, masculine dance—which insists on the heteronormativity of Fiddler’s wedding scene even as it performs a lovely, queer homosociality—has been adopted as a Jewish ritual tradition that persists even now at weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.

I had fun at Fiddler.  How can you not?  Talk about essentialism:  I cried through the whole thing, moved by the music, the dialogue, the predictable, inexorable situations, and by the man with the fiddle who haunts Tevye’s every decision and goes with him to America, carrying a bit of home and a continually diminishing sense of the shtetl along.  Is it my Jewishness that causes me to cry through Fiddler?  Is it my own nostalgia for singing the score around the piano with my family through the years?  Or my nostalgia for singing “Sabbath Prayer” with Stacy at the occasion of one of our nieces’ baby-naming ceremonies?  Or my memories of performing in our family living room as each of the characters when I was growing up, regardless of gender, and acting them all out the way I thought best?  Or my second-hand recall of Stacy’s stories about staging the Fruma Sarah dream-sequence with her sister, Allie, when they were kids?

(By the way, Smith stages that scene beautifully here.  The characters in Tevye’s dream wear surreal animal masks.  When the dead Fruma Sarah appears, she rises from the middle of the bed in a column of tulle as a monstrous, huge figure that towers over Tevye and Golde to proclaim her curse on Tzeitel’s marriage to Lazar Wolf.  Then she disappears back into the bedding the way she came.  This was the most brilliant interpretation of this number Stacy and I have ever seen.  It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once, even when you know exactly how the iconic number ends.)

In the theatre’s on line dramaturgical notes, Hadary claims,

“I grew up hearing the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem. In fact, my family members could well be characters in the play. So there was a lot of connection to the material.  This whole production, of Fiddler on the Roof, here, for me, brings together an awful lot of threads in my life—my ancestry, my whole life as an actor, my family, my Washington roots, plus it’s simply as good a role as has ever been written for a man in the theater.”

Okay, so he’s Jewish after all.  Does that secure something authentic about his performance?  I don’t really think so.

Fiddler, the fiddler
Fiddling on the roof

I can’t quite explain my “Jewish” nostalgia for Fiddler, or why exactly I care whether its characters are played by Jews.  There’s something about ethnic spectacle that Smith’s production both panders to and explicates, a bid for authenticity in which multiracial bodies might have gotten in her way and taken focus from the “real” Jewishness she thinks she’s invoking here.  But if Smith is going to attempt cultural specificity, then I suppose I can revert to ethnic form and say that most of these actors didn’t “feel” Jewish, that the production didn’t evoke anything particularly authentic in its rendering of shtetl life, cultural consultants and scholars aside.  But then, Solomon would say it was never meant to be authentic, but was crafted as an American memory of an unknowable past, one safely left behind with the Russians as Eastern European Jews immigrated to the new world and looked forward, never back.

The Feminist Spectator

Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Molly Smith at Arena Stage, November 23, 2014; closes January 11, 2015.


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